“Those Who Can’t, Teach”
Reviewer: Jocelyn Chng
Performance: 9 March 2017
In a nursing home, a retired teacher sits alone in a wheelchair, slightly forgetful, as a distant memory of students celebrating prom night plays over in her head. So goes the final scene of Those Who Can’t, Teach; the audience is left with this haunting image that lingers beyond the final blackout.
Written by Haresh Sharma and first produced by The Necessary Stage in 1990, this play has since become a classic in the Necessary Stage canon. With the Ministry of Education’s persistent recruitment campaigns over the years, and more recent media spotlights on teachers leaving the service, the play remains as relevant, if not even more so, than when it was written 27 years ago.
Apart from a few updates to reflect current technology such as Whatsapp, the play is staged with close adherence to the original text. The subjects of teaching, and the complex bittersweet relationships between teachers and their students, are inherently enduring.
Mrs Phua, the central character, is a burdened, self-sacrificing secondary school teacher who “spends more time with other people’s children” than her own. I appreciate that she is not written as a perfect martyr, though. She has her flaws, such as being so fervent about the students’ academic work that she beats down the efforts of Sabtu, the school canteen vendor, to equip less academically-inclined students with other skills through his enterprising “mentorship programme”.
A few parts of the narrative do require a stretch of the imagination, such as Jali’s sudden visit to Mrs Phua many years after graduating, and the complicated subplot surrounding another teacher, Miss Hana.
The experienced cast delivers the performance quite impeccably, except perhaps the one part that requires non-Hokkien speakers to deliver lines in Hokkien, which is too jarring and disrupts my suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, the underlying powerful message of the play and strong performance leaves little that can be faulted.
Judging from the many students in the audience, and their rapt attention and laughter throughout the performance (even though it is the relationship issues and the few instances of strong language that draw the loudest responses), this play has the potential to help nurture a future theatregoing audience that is not only larger but hopefully also more thoughtful.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
THOSE WHO CAN’T, TEACH by The Necessary Stage
9 – 19 March 2017
Drama Centre Theatre
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jocelyn holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research. She is a founding member of the Song and Dance (SoDa) Players – a registered musical theatre society in Singapore. She is currently building her portfolio career as an educator and practitioner in dance and theatre, while pursuing an MA in Education (Dance Teaching).